The world's biggest direct air capture (DAC) plant is set to come online in Iceland on Wednesday. The moment is an important one in developing new technologies to help suck carbon dioxide out of the air—but raises a whole host of questions on the future of how we're going to put those technologies to use.
The Orca plant, located about 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of the capital of Reykjavík, uses large industrial vacuums to remove carbon dioxide from the air. The plant's owners and operators, a Swiss startup called Climeworks, said that the plant can remove 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere, powered by hydrothermal energy. Climeworks has partnered with a carbon storage company to take that carbon dioxide and store it deep underground, where it turns into stone (whoa) after about two years.
Unlike other carbon capture technologies that prevent carbon dioxide from being released from dirty technologies in the first place—which are generally attached to fossil fuel facilities—DAC plants like Orca present the possibility of removing some of the damage we've already done. In theory, we could dot the earth with plants like Orca, resulting in what are known as "negative emissions." These types of technology aren't ready for primetime at scale yet, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said we need them to help meet the target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) outlined in the Paris Agreement (in addition to cutting emissions in the first place of course).